Glimpses Into a Navy Seaman's Life


A young Black man stands in a naval sailor's uniform holding a rifle in a weathered black and white photograph.
An undated photo of William Warren Johnson in his uniform (SPEC.RARE.0177, box 1, folder 5)

Carefully nestled in paper and tucked in pristine gray and white boxes is a small collection of personal items that once were part of a young Black seaman’s daily life. They include some letters and a couple of photographs, his U.S. Navy uniform from World War II, a duffel bag and even a pair of skivvies.

The collection – the William Warren Johnson United States Naval Service Papers – was acquired by University Libraries and is being catalogued and stored as part of the historical military collection at Ohio State.

“We acquired these items from a rare book firm that often offers African-American materials,” explains Eric Johnson, curator of Thompson Special Collections. “We have a fairly substantial amount of U.S. military materials, and World War II items are significant because that time period reflected so many changes economically and culturally in the U.S. There also was a wider deployment of African-American soldiers in World War II compared to any other wars before.”

A deep navy uniform jacket and pants laid flat on a wooden table.
William Warren Johnson's Navy uniform (SPEC.RARE.0177, boxes 4 and 5)

But, he added, this small collection reveals something more. “We’ve been trying to diversify the stories that our military history collections can tell,” he said. “It’s not just because these things belonged to an African-American sailor … but also because they are more than just letters, more than just papers.”

When Libraries considers new collections, the curators think of the various ways they may be used educationally. Johnson explains, “From an exhibition point of view, how can we tell a compelling story when we have just words written on paper? That’s often not the most visually dynamic thing to have displayed in a gallery. The fact that this collection includes a duffel bag and uniform gives us a lot more substance to bring William Warren Johnson to life. It offers a diversity of artifactual value.”

A tan canvas duffel bag with the name "Johnson, W.W." printed on the front.
William Warren Johnson's duffel bag (SPEC.RARE.0177, box 2, item 1)

Everyone’s closets and attics could be storing historical materials like William Warren Johnson’s. “It’s purely by chance that these things ended up at Ohio State,” Johnson said. “His family, his friends, whoever was in possession of these items preserved them, maybe just by keeping them in the back of a closet for 40 years. But they kept them, making it possible for us to learn from them.

“William Warren Johnson apparently was not a famous person,” Johnson added. “He didn’t serve in any great battles that we know of. He didn’t perform any huge act of heroism that Hollywood might have turned into a movie. But none of that matters.

“He lived a life. And this archive helps us recapture what that life must have been like. It allows us in a very real way to almost touch what that life was, and who that person was. That’s what’s really interesting.”